With soaring sandstone arches, serpentine slot canyons, slickrock domes, and hoodoos of all shapes and sizes, Utah boasts some of the most otherworldly panoramas on planet Earth.
Public lands cover two-thirds of the state, offering vast opportunities to hike, bike, raft, ski, climb and camp – or simply gape at epic views from behind the wheel of a car. If the outdoors is your thing, Utah is your place. Here are the best places to go for a uniquely Utah experience.
Base yourself in Moab for outdoor adventures
On the doorstep of two national parks, a national forest with summits over 12,000ft, and endless acres of slickrock-clad Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, Moab is ground zero for outdoor action in Utah. A variety of restaurants, shops, hotels and outfitters line the streets downtown.
Just to the north, Arches National Park is graced with some of the most spectacular examples of what wind, water, freezing, and thawing can do to rock over time. If there is one must-see destination in Utah, this might be it, though in peak season the crowds can be the stuff of nightmares.
Nearby Canyonlands National Park (Utah’s largest) sees far fewer visitors while offering countless spots to view a Martian-like landscape from the rims or the bottoms of huge canyons, or among formations such as The Needles, Chocolate Drops, or Land of Standing Rocks. The Green and the Colorado Rivers meet in the heart of the park.
Moab also offers easy access to some of the best mountain biking anywhere, as well as prime desert rock climbing, river rafting, and more.
Canyons of the Escalante is a great hiking region
Prepare to get wet and dirty hiking this sinuous canyon system that’s hewn into a massive field of petrified sand dunes. Spanning some 1500 sq miles, including sections of both Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Escalante is wild, rugged country. Though you’ll probably end up wading through pools and creeks, struggling among tamarisk groves, and scrambling over rocks, it’s more than worth it. The sublime beauty of the sensuous red- and orange-hued walls, streaked with desert varnish, inspires a sense of gratitude for life itself. Each side canyon has its own character – some feel private, intimate, while others are impressively grand. Aim for highlights such as the Golden Cathedral and Stevens Arch, or pick a route where you’re less likely to run into other people. Either way, you’ll be glad to be wherever you are.
Wasatch Range has world-class skiing
Home to the alpine events during the 2002 Olympic Games, the Wasatch Range features world-class skiing on the western fringe of the Rocky Mountains. Want to hit the varied terrain at the largest ski area in the US? Head for Park City. Want to ski on slopes that ban snowboarding? Deer Valley and Alta are for you. And these are just a few of the top resorts in a region that receives some 500 inches of powder each winter. But snow sports aren’t the only draw. Each January you can join the filmmakers, celebrities, and movie lovers who flock to the Wasatch for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Perfect for even a quick getaway, all of this is within an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City airport.
Bears Ears National Monument is home to Ancestral Puebloan Sites
Covering 1.36 million acres of land sacred to the region’s Native American tribes, Bears Ears National Monument features some of the most remarkable Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah. Regardless of how much time (and energy) you have, there’s something here for everyone. You can practically drive right up to the petroglyphs that crowd onto Newspaper Rock. Hiking for a few hours on Cedar Mesa will take you to ruins with names like Moon House and House on Fire – named for the effect of the morning sunlight reflecting on the rocks around the stone structure. And on a multi-day backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, you’ll find cliff dwellings, kivas and granaries set between burly canyon walls. Wherever you choose to go, you can’t fail to wonder about the lives of the people who lived on this land some 2000 years ago, and what they were expressing through their art.
Highway 12 is perfect for a scenic drive
In a state with no shortage of scenic roads, this route may well top the list. At one end, you’ll drive among the huge, surrealistic domes of Capitol Reef National Park, where the rock is every color of the rainbow. Just to the west, Highway 12 then plunges south, over a 9400ft pass, and down into the exquisite geology of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Some of the most eye-popping views from the road are found between the towns of Boulder and Escalante, but there’s plenty to explore along the way, too. Take a quick side trip east of Boulder along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway, or get out from behind the wheel and hike around the drip-castle world of Bryce Canyon National Park, near the western end of the highway.
San Juan River is the best spot for rafting trips
Meandering through Utah’s southeastern corner, the San Juan carves a gorgeous route through 300 million years of geologic time. On rafting trips, ranging from two to seven days, you’ll float between sheer canyon walls, past cliffs etched with hundreds of petroglyphs, and through miles of twisting “goosenecks.” At night, you’ll camp on sandy beaches gazing at pristine starry skies. Since most of the rapids rarely rise above class II, this trip is less about white water and more about the scenery and experiencing the rhythm of the river. It’s perfect for families with kids and hardcore outdoor enthusiasts alike.
Dinosaur National Monument is packed with fossils
Back in Jurassic times, animal carcasses washed down a river, ran aground on a sandy bank, and settled into the sediment. Many of these creatures were deposited in the same place, forming a densely packed pile of bones, now preserved as fossils in exposed layers of sandstone in Dinosaur National Monument. Quarry Exhibit Hall was built around one such formation, making it easy to see about 1500 fossils "‘in the wild" – in an air-conditioned space. More fossil beds can be viewed on trails, including a 1.2-mile loop from the visitor center. More than just one of the richest dinosaur caches in the world, the park, which stretches into Colorado, also features stunning scenery within the Green and Yampa river corridors that can be hiked and rafted.
Salt Lake City has excellent dining options
Hands down the best culinary scene in Utah is in its capital. You’ll find everything from innovative farm-to-table restaurants to family-run diners. Salt Lake’s top-notch international cuisine includes Mexican, Ethiopian, Greek and Nepalese. There’s even a New York-style deli that Jewish publication, The Forward, calls “a must.” Brew pubs and coffeeshops abound. For a more serendipitous exploration of the Salt Lake City food scene, the neighborhoods of downtown, Liberty Park or Sugar House are abundant with a diverse selection of restaurants and coffee shops.